Show caption Boris Johnson has made a mockery of the public’s sacrifices. Photograph: Matt Dunham/PA Opinion The Observer view on Boris Johnson’s untenable leadership Tory MPs must use their power to sack the prime minister for flouting Covid laws Observer editorial Sun 17 Apr 2022 06.00 BST Share on Facebook
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Last week brought confirmation that Boris Johnson broke laws intended to protect the public during a national emergency. The prime minister and the chancellor are among the group of people who have been fined by the Metropolitan police for attending illegal gatherings in Downing Street, on this occasion to celebrate his birthday. Johnson is expected to receive more fines in the coming weeks.
It should be untenable for him to remain in office. First, there is the substance of his misdemeanours. Members of the public made huge sacrifices in order to comply with Covid restrictions during the national lockdowns. People were not able to see their sick relatives, to say goodbye in person one last time or to hold normal-size funerals. Yet the prime minister and his colleagues thought it acceptable to attend numerous parties on the government estate. It makes a mockery of those sacrifices, leaving people feeling not just angry but guilty that they, too, did not break the law in order to be with the dying rather than to attend a birthday party.
Then there is the way that the prime minister has handled these revelations in recent months. On numerous occasions, he assured parliament no rules or laws had been broken. The only person to resign in this scandal was his former spokesperson after a video of her joking about a party was leaked; it is not even clear whether she attended any herself. Meanwhile, Johnson has simply brushed off his wrongdoing, with Downing Street sources insulting the intelligence of the public by comparing the fixed-penalty notice to speeding fines.
It is unprecedented for a prime minister to be fined by the police for such serious breaches of the law. Every week he remains in office is another week that undermines the public’s trust not just in the government, but in the whole political class. In our parliamentary democracy, Johnson’s immediate fate lies in the hands of MPs in the Conservative party, not in the hands of voters. Only these politicians have the power to eject him from Downing Street through a vote of no confidence, yet it looks highly unlikely they will act.
And so Johnson is left free to undermine the office of prime minister long after he should have resigned and to introduce policies designed to dominate newspaper headlines regardless of their consequences. The latest is the memorandum of understanding with Rwanda. This will pave the way for the government to forcibly deport to Rwanda people fleeing conflict and torture who seek refuge in the UK, in exchange for a significant financial contribution to the Rwandan government.
The archbishop of Canterbury is right to condemn this in the strongest of terms. One of the richest countries in the world is bribing one of the poorest countries in the world – with its own poor track record of human rights abuses – to outsource our ethical and legal obligations to refugees. Britain gets many fewer applications for asylum than France and Germany, and last year granted protection to 13,000 refugees, the equivalent of just 20 per parliamentary constituency. As a country, we should be doing more, not less, to provide a safe sanctuary to people who have experienced dreadful conflict and human rights abuses in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine.
But under the government’s plans, it would aim to deport at great expense to those who arrive in the UK via irregular routes – like many asylum seekers do – to Rwanda, where they would be obliged to apply for asylum. The government argues this would minimise loss of life in the Channel by discouraging people from making the crossing to the UK. Yet the Australian policy of processing asylum seekers offshore on the Pacific island of Nauru did not reduce levels of people smuggling. In fact, when Israel struck a deal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda between 2014 and 2017, many left Rwanda almost immediately and turned to people smugglers to try and get back to Europe.
The lack of any evidence to support the government’s contention this will reduce Channel crossings has resulted in the civil service refusing to sign the policy off on value for money grounds. This has meant that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had to issue a ministerial direction in order to override them, only the second used by a home secretary in 30 years. It also remains to be seen whether this is a policy that would survive challenge in the courts under international law.
Either way, this forced deportation scheme marks a new low for British refugee policy, already marred by the inhumane policies in the nationality and borders bill, the government’s failure to offer refuge to all Afghans who worked with British forces before their withdrawal, and the hopeless delays in processing visas for Ukrainian refugees. It would establish a principle that wealthy countries can shrug off obligations to refugees, undermining the very basis of international law and the 1951 Refugee convention.
Unless Conservative MPs use their power to sack Johnson, this is what the country is consigned to until the next general election: a prime minister who has flouted the law and misled parliament trying to distract from his own lack of probity by pushing out ever-worse policies that will temporarily grab headlines, regardless of the human cost. They should ask themselves whether they are prepared to be complicit in the long-term damage Johnson is wreaking to their party, to the political system and to the country.